Based on current trends, 59% of 20-24 year olds in sub-Saharan Africa will complete secondary education in 2030, compared to 42% in 2012. This translates into 137 million young people with secondary education and 12 million with tertiary education by 2030. Ironically, the most educated confront a mismatch between their training and available employment opportunities. Whilst 26% of students enrolled in University in Africa study humanities, only 2% of students are enrolled in agricultural programmes, and government and donor investments in agricultural education and training have become negligible since the early 1990s.
Although Africa’s youth on the whole are increasingly better educated, rural youth are still plagued by low levels of literacy, poor numeracy, high dropout rates (particularly in secondary education) and low levels of tertiary enrolments. Further, more than half of the rural youth pursue activities other than farming, but often end up underemployed or unemployed.
Agricultural education and training (AET) covers a broad range of formal and informal activities that build capacity within the agriculture sector and for wider rural development encompassing higher education, diploma and certificate levels, vocational and in-service training and informal knowledge and skill acquisition. Some of these provide formal education and training systems in schools and universities; others use training in private and public workforce organisations; and most relevant for smallholder farmers are education systems on the ground, such as farmer field schools.
AET in sub-Saharan Africa can contribute to agricultural development by strengthening innovative capabilities, or the ability to introduce new products and processes that are relevant to smallholder farmers and other actors in the agricultural sector. Education is often the most valuable asset for rural people wishing to engage in jobs in the agricultural value chains where they need both technical knowledge and business skills.
Innovation, often regarded as a pre-condition for successful entrepreneurship, is positively related to the level of education in most developed countries. However, the lack of access to educational opportunities in developing countries, especially for women, discourages the pursuit of an entrepreneurial career. For women and young people in particular, vocational training and skill development are instrumental.
Whilst women make up about half of the African labour force, only 45% of women in Africa are literate, compared to 70% of men and about 1.5% of women achieve higher education. By focusing on building the capacity of young people and women in particular, African governments will be able to increase the productivity of a large proportion of their labour forces.
Sustainable agriculture is a very knowledge-intensive, skilled activity based on changing environmental, social and institutional conditions that are specific to individual communities. Agricultural education and training is therefore the principle source from which smallholder farmers can access resources for improving agricultural productivity and natural resource management. Education is often the most valuable asset for rural people trying to pursue new opportunities within agriculture, obtain skilled jobs, start businesses in the rural non-farm economy, or migrate successfully to better urban based job opportunities.
Agricultural education and training in sub-Saharan Africa can contribute to agricultural development by strengthening capabilities for innovation and willingness to adopt and apply new technologies. In addition, farmers are able to engage with traders and other actors on a more equal footing. Although collective action in the form of farmer associations or cooperatives can be a source for continued agricultural education, they tend to be more effective when farmers have achieved a minimum level of literacy and numeracy.
Most African farmers only have access to primary education. Basic education is also frequently biased against agriculture since school curricula are normally designed for urban schools and not adapted for rural schools. The quality of tertiary agricultural education is critical because it determines the expertise and competence of scientists, professionals, technicians, teachers, and civil service and business leaders in all aspects of agriculture and related industries. It raises their capacities to access knowledge and adapt it to prevailing challenges and to generate new knowledge and impart it to others. The absence or decline of education and training institutions leaves a large gap in a country’s innovation capacity. Even so, government and donor investments in agricultural education and training have become negligible since the early 1990s.
The 2003 Jinja Consensus highlighted the need for change in university level education in Africa and called for the creation of a new African agricultural university to build a new cadre of agricultural graduates who will go on to become entrepreneurs rather than confining themselves to existing agricultural education, research, and extension organisations. Although it is widely recognized that the quality of graduate and postgraduate agricultural education in Africa must be improved, the status and performance of agricultural institutes still face many hurdles.
In view of the large distances between farms and markets across Africa and poor connective infrastructure, agricultural actors need to take greater advantage of modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) and distance learning methodologies that can facilitate access to improved knowledge. Farmer-to-farmer communication is also a powerful tool since most people communicate more easily with their peers and tend to quickly adopt practices once recognized as successful. Although most platforms encourage value chain integration more than knowledge enhancement, WeFarm is a peer-to-peer communications platform created by the Cafédirect Producers’ Foundation that supports person-person knowledge sharing and community extension services. The digital platform enables isolated smallholder farmers in Latin America to crowd source solutions from a global community by using a basic mobile phone to send a local-rate text message.
To make careers along agriculture value chains more attractive, the way that agriculture is presented to students needs to be adjusted. This can be achieved through public sector youth training programmes, for example, which help young graduates become successful agricultural entrepreneurs. In 2014, the World Bank approved US$150 million to finance 19 university-based Centres of Excellence in 7 countries in West and Central Africa to equip young Africans with new scientific and technical skills in various disciplines including agriculture. Further, as part of the German government’s new food and nutrition initiative ‘One World No Hunger’, 10 ‘Green Innovation Centres’ will be established that seek to improve smallholder farmers’ incomes, generate employment opportunities and secure the delivery of more nutritious food. The centres aim to introduce and support the diffusion of new technologies in agricultural value chains in partnership with private sector companies such as BASF and Bayer.
At a basic level many of the conventional agricultural education and training approaches are designed to build human and scientific capital through technical training. This is a worthy objective but often falls short of education in how to deal with the non-technical problems that farmers face. There is a need for better integration of programmes in formal education institutions. A shift in approach is also needed to prepare graduates of agriculture education programmes for new kinds of employment opportunities. Educational materials need to be linked to advances in technology, and have greater relevance to a diverse and evolving sector, with a focus on agribusiness and entrepreneurship. Beyond technical skills, building capacity for management, decision-making, communication and leadership should also be central.
An evaluation of agricultural institutions and services is needed to restore the quality of graduate and postgraduate agricultural education in Africa. In response to this challenge, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) developed the Framework for African Agricultural Productivity (FAAP). FAAP calls for strengthening farmer empowerment and states that “farmers who have the capacity to analyse their constraints and identify opportunities, articulate their needs, exchange knowledge, and improve their bargaining power will have better access to, and use of, relevant agricultural knowledge and technologies.” FAAP also calls for increased farmer training and education both as a way to stimulate agricultural productivity and as a way to make farming as a career more attractive to young people.